Midway through the second quarter of the Clippers’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena, guard Eric Bledsoe knifed into the lane, his eyes looking for a target. He fired a perfectly placed pass to a wide-open Taurean Prince.
The problem was Prince plays for the Timberwolves.
For a split-second, time seemed to freeze, as neither team turned to head back down the court. Bledsoe hung his head. Prince froze for a moment while clenching the basketball, seemingly dumbfounded that it had appeared in his hands.
The moment was emblematic of the Clippers’ 122-104 loss in which, on “Star Wars Night” for fans, it seemed as if the Timberwolves (17-20) were casting a cruel Jedi mind trick on Clippers players.
The Clippers (19-19) committed 13 turnovers in the first half alone, but the number on paper wasn’t nearly as stunning as the eye test. Most of the giveaways came unforced. Passes sailed out of bounds or careened off Clippers players’ fingertips without any Minnesota defensive pressure. Bledsoe, who had been playing such terrific basketball that he was named a finalist for the last Western Conference player of the week award, had a season-high six turnovers before halftime.
“I don’t know how many times … when we had two-on-one, three-on-one advantages, and instead of just making the simple play, we turned the ball over,” said Brian Shaw, the Clippers’ acting head coach.
With Ivica Zubac in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and Isaiah Hartenstein out because of an ankle injury, it left Serge Ibaka, 32, as the only proven center on the active roster.
That left Shaw with a problem and a “slim margin for error,” as Minnesota entered Monday’s game as the NBA’s third-best offensive rebounding team. It didn’t help that the Clippers, without injuries, were already one of the league’s worst teams on the glass. The leading rebounder left on the active roster was 6-foot-5 guard Terance Mann.
“We can’t afford to have anybody standing around and watching,” Shaw said before the game.
The Clippers largely managed to keep the Timberwolves off the glass. They couldn’t, however, stop Minnesota from scoring in the interior, as the Timberwolves built an 18-point halftime lead while shooting better than 52% from the field.
The lack of rim protection was apparent. Even as Ibaka played well offensively, leading the Clippers with 17 points, he found himself getting mean-mugged by the 6-1 Patrick Beverley after the former Clippers guard made a second-quarter layup over him.
The Clippers have been operating with a next-man-up mentality as injuries and positive COVID tests have piled up — and that’s not just for the players. Not only is coach Tyronn Lue stuck quarantining in a Toronto hotel room, but associate head coach Dan Craig (knee surgery) and assistant Jeremy Castleberry (COVID protocols), normally the team’s defensive coordinators, were also out. That left Dahntay Jones — a player development coach in his second season on the Clippers’ staff — to handle the defense.
“We’ve had to scramble,” Shaw said before the game.
Shaw has had to scramble with his lineups too. With the Clippers down 20 points at the start of the fourth quarter, he turned to a five-man unit of Keon Johnson, a rookie who had played 11 NBA games in his career; Amir Coffey and Justise Winslow, each averaging less than five points per game; G League call-up Xavier Moon; and recent 10-day contract signee James Ennis III.
“Some of those guys I’ve never played with before,” Winslow said. “I don’t really know their names too well.”
Surprisingly, the group gave the arena energy. Moon darted across the court to nail a flurry of jumpers, scoring nine points in a little more than two minutes as teammates on the bench jumped up and down and whipped towels in celebration.
“Obviously, I’m not here to play a huge role,” Moon said, “but I’m here to play my role … I don’t even know what tomorrow holds, but [I’m] just taking it one day at a time.”
But after Moon’s jumper cut the Clippers’ deficit to 13 points with 8:33 left, the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, who had 28 points, silenced the crowd with a pull-up three-pointer. Minnesota didn’t look back and ended a three-game skid.
Two nights after completing a thrilling 13-point comeback in a victory over the Brooklyn Nets, the Clippers couldn’t rally again.
Before the game, Shaw said the Clippers had to fight with what they had, and they received scoring from unlikely sources. Winslow contributed a season-high 15 points, Moon finished with 13 and Ennis had 10. But what they had wasn’t enough.